When the land finally eased into a flat terrain, the light of a small fire was visible. Forty yards away, through the woods, someone sat by the crackling flame, playing a fiddle, a haunting melody that seemed immune to the eeriness of the darkness.
Dirk stepped closer, turning off his flashlight as the flame lit a path in front of him. Now forty-five feet away, he spotted the worn, rugged face of a man. Dirk raised his hand and waved, but the musician tended to his fiddle.
Standing by the fire, Dirk studied the old man’s eyes, gray and cloudy, frozen in hard stance. His nose almost touched his chin and scraggly patches of white hair were scattered about his face and neck. His violin made a sweet sound that seemed to hang above the fire, soft in the air before evaporating with the smoke.
Dirk remained on the backside of the pit, flashing a smile, but the man stared off into the night. Eyes that couldn’t see?
The man sang, “Where shall I be, when I hear that trumpet sound?” He tapped his foot and his body swayed. “Where shall I be, when it sounds so loud?”
Dirk was mesmerized by the mountain man and couldn’t imagine a more poignant figure to symbolize the way of the land.
“Oh, I’ll be sleepin’ in my grave, when that first trumpet sounds, I’ll be sleepin’ in my grave when it sounds so loud.”
The crooner stopped, tilting his head as a dog might to sniff the air. “Who stands afore me?”
Dirk slipped around the small fire and was but a few feet to the left of the man. “Hello. I hope I didn’t startle you. I’m camping down below on the trail. I heard the music and followed it up here.”
He turned his head toward the source of the voice. “The voice you speak ain’t from this mountain. I take it you’re a passin’ through.”
“I’m hiking the Iron Mountain Trail. You play the violin well.”
“The power of the Lord sparks through this bow. You should be a seekin’ God’s protection this lonely night. Iron Mountain holds only contempt for those who wander upon her.”
“I’m not wandering. Just passing through on the trail. I’ll be in Damascus by Friday.”
“Only God knows whether your plans are as you say.”
Over the man’s shoulder, through the darkness, the dancing light of the fire revealed a small lean-to. “Is this your home?”
“This mountain is my home. The shack is but a place of shelter.”
“Are you the hermit I’ve heard talk about?”
The old man let go a cackle. “Uncle Gaines has been asleep in the bowels of this mountain since nineteen and twenty-three.”
“Is that a fact? You appear like you lead the life of a hermit. Did Gaines inspire you?”
“A man’s life ain’t to be judged by whether he chooses solitary ways, or whether’n he chooses to be a family man. It’s his love for his Maker that determines his worth. On Iron Mountain, ain’t no one to be judged ’cept’n by Him. Answer to no one but the good Lord.”
“How long have you’ve lived here, if you don’t mind me asking?” Dirk was now standing beside the stranger, though the man’s gaze still faced the fire. “How long have you been alone?”
“Alone,” he repeated. “Ain’t never alone on this mountain.”
Confused, Dirk saw no signs of life around him. “What do you mean?”
“Iron Mountain is a graveyard of bones and dust. My ancestry is all around me. Cain’t be alone surrounded by souls of the past. I sing with the dead every night.”
“It’s fairly hard to carry a conversion with souls. You can speak your mind—speak your thoughts. What about the desire to know the thoughts of another? To know their thoughts of you?”
The man grabbed a mason jar on a rickety table beside his chair and took a sip of a clear liquid. “You got no way of understandin’ the ways of my world. My suggestion would be you return to where you came.”